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Late reversal turns tide for Texas Tech

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MINNEAPOLIS — Davide Moretti won the 50-50 ball near mid-court and saw daylight as he pushed towards the rim.

With his Red Raiders trailing 75-73 in overtime of the national championship game, the Texas Tech guard gained possession off of a Ty Jerome missed jumper. Moretti’s goal was to immediately get to the basket to potentially tie the game with just over a minute left.

“I think we were down so I was trying to attack the rim and try to make it a one-possession game,” Moretti said.

In an instant, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter swallowed up Moretti’s driving lane.

College basketball’s national defensive player of the year swiped the ball away from the dribbling Moretti as Hunter’s deflection forced the ball out of bounds. To the naked eye, it appeared Texas Tech would retain possession with a chance to tie, or take the lead, with 1:06 left in overtime.

Slow-motion replay cameras showed a different story.

Officials reviewed the play and saw the ball graze off Moretti’s right pinky before it went out of play. The initial call of Texas Tech ball was overturned. Virginia was given possession after the official monitor review.

The momentum-shifting call gave the Cavaliers a chance to gain a two-possession lead. When play resumed, Jerome was fouled and made two free throws to give Virginia a 77-73 lead with 41 seconds left. The Red Raiders never had another possession with a chance to tie, or take the lead, as the Cavaliers closed out their first men’s basketball national championship with a memorable 85-77 overtime win.

Some viewers immediately criticized the merit of replay, and overturned calls, after the Moretti out-of-bounds decision was reversed. The referees’ new conclusion changed the momentum of a thrilling game — though the ruling was ultimately correct. Others also maintained the spirit of the replay rule was compromised by the switched decision in the midst of an intense back-and-forth contest.

Those critical of the decision also argued that Virginia’s Kyle Guy wasn’t called for a potential foul for hitting Moretti right before Hunter knocked the ball away from him. Fouls are not reviewable.

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

It also didn’t help that officials tagged Moretti with a foul call a few possessions earlier. Guy appeared to trip over teammate Mamadi Diakite’s foot instead of a Texas Tech defender as Moretti shouldered the blame. Another missed call, with the foul given to Moretti, gave Guy two free throws to cut the Texas Tech lead to 73-72 with 2:45 left. Official review also isn’t allowed to check on a play like that.

The animosity of multiple perceived blown calls down the stretch resonated with those who wanted a classic title game to stay tight until the very end.

“I think they called a foul on me when Kyle Guy tripped over his teammate. And they overturned a call that they made on the inbound. I think that was two big-time moments that helped decide the game,” Moretti said.

The replay not going Texas Tech’s way hurt enough. The overturned out-of-bounds call also made it difficult for the Red Raiders’ coaching staff to properly prepare for what was next in the team’s huddle. In the midst of a tense one-possession game, with the season on the line, head coach Chris Beard tried his best to get the Red Raiders ready for an either/or scenario during the official review. Being behind is tough enough. Trailing during an uncertain situation is that much more difficult. It was impossible to predict what was coming in the midst of the chaos and confusion.

“We prepared both ways. If we get the ball, do this. If we don’t get the ball, do that,” Beard said. “One of the differences between winning and losing [comes that close].”

Even though the national championship game was a thriller — the first overtime title game since 2008 — some fans believed the replay situation, and missed calls, marred the outcome. It’s also tough to take those claims seriously when some of those same viewers would complain if a ruling occurred if slow-motion replay wasn’t allowed.

The human element of officiating — with referees who are some of the finest in a sport filled with rapid decisions — has always been a part of basketball — and most sports in general. Replay, and overturned calls, have also been demanded by many fans during a modern era where we demand accountability for every single call in a game’s final minutes.

We can’t have it both ways. Although Moretti is correct in his assessment that those plays shifted the momentum of the outcome, he also dribbled straight into one of the sport’s best defensive players when teammate Jarrett Culver was trailing for a potential layup. Texas Tech could have just as easily called a timeout when Moretti dribbled into the double team. Moretti’s mishap is being glossed over by some even though the slow-motion replay, and changed decision, ended up being correct.

“It was a 50-50 ball, and after I grabbed it, [Hunter] touched it so I couldn’t make a move,” Moretti said. “I was thinking about making a move but he was quicker than I thought he was going to be.”

Replay isn’t going away. Referees sometimes miss calls in key spots. Adjustments to the rule book might even prevent some of the aforementioned scenarios. But to claim that Texas Tech lost because of an overturned call is silly. Although the Red Raiders were undoubtedly hurt by some officials’ decisions, they still held themselves accountable for a difficult loss that will sting for a long time.

“We’re a no-excuse program so I think we lost the game in other respects,” Moretti said.

WATCH: One Shining Moment caps memorable 2019 NCAA tournament

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A memorable 2019 NCAA tournament was finished off with Virginia taking the title with an overtime thriller over Texas Tech.

While this tournament featured a slow opening weekend with minimal upsets and a lot of chalk, things rapidly picked up in the final two weekends with memorable finishes and clutch individual performances.

Just like every season, One Shining Moment captures all of the tournament’s best moments in a few action-packed minutes.

Jarrett Culver vs. De’Andre Hunter is the most appealing part of the national championship

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MINNEAPOLIS — Monday night’s national championship battle between Virginia and Texas Tech has been billed as a battle of underdogs and top-five defenses.

Both programs have never reached this point in the NCAA tournament. Suffocating opponents and the “defense wins championships” mantra applies to Chris Beard and Tony Bennett and how they prefer to run things.

In a smaller individual subplot, however, Monday’s title game features an intriguing contest on the wing between two potential NBA lottery picks in Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. During a season in which Zion Williamson became the talk of the sport, the glaring lack of one-and-done prospects has been a topic of discussion, once again, during the Final Four. Since Duke and Kentucky both got upset in the Elite Eight, the opportunity to see two lottery-level talents play against each other on the sport’s biggest stage could emerge as the most fascinating storyline to watch for a large casual audience.

“You can tell, when the game’s on the line, [Culver’s] their guy. And it’s similar in our case with De’Andre Hunter,” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said of the duo. “When you find a guy with size, and a skill set that can play out to the NBA line, all the way to the rim, you have to [play through them].”

“We face a lot of guys in the ACC and [Culver’s] every bit an ACC kind of player that we see. So the respect for him is at a high level.”

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Culver and Hunter share many similarities and a few differences. NBC Sports first-team All-Americans during the 2018-19 season, the duo entered college with minimal fanfare as potential pro prospects — only to emerge in the lottery discussion after a few seasons in school. Multi-positional on the defensive end, Culver and Hunter can be disruptive thanks to their length and program’s defense-first mindsets. Hunter gains a slight edge for his individual defensive prowess but Culver is certainly no slouch on that end.

And the duo can also erupt for 20-point outings against quality competition. Culver is the more aggressive and dangerous offensive threat off the dribble whereas Hunter is a more consistent catch-and-shoot perimeter option.

The duo will likely spend some time defending each other on Monday night. The mutual respect between the pair is apparent in how each describes each other’s games.

“I just know that he’s a great player, athletic, can shoot the ball well. I mean, he plays defense,” Culver said of Hunter. “We know a lot about him. But it’s going to be a great matchup for our team to play against him.”

“He’s a great player; he’s a two-way player,” Hunter said of Culver. “He’s a bigger guard and he basically does everything for his team. He’s very versatile.”

Fresh off of Saturday night’s national semifinal victories, both coaching staffs are still figuring the best way to play against each other. Slowing down Culver and Hunter will undoubtedly be a focal point for the Cavaliers and Red Raiders.

But there are also plenty of other talented offensive players on each team to contend with. Texas Tech has received stellar play from senior guard Matt Mooney and sophomore floor-spacer Davide Moretti during the past few weeks. Virginia is always hunting looks for talented perimeter shooters like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — potentially the Cavaliers’ go-to offensive options on Monday. There’s a distinct possibility Culver and Hunter spend a healthy amount of the game in individual matchups against other threats.

“There will be different guys guarding each other depending on who is on the floor for us and who is on the floor for them. But I can see those two going against each other. But it’s much bigger than Jarrett and De’Andre,” Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford said.

Two defensive juggernauts battling in a slow-tempo game isn’t the most desirable tussle to watch. So the chance to see two NBA-level talents closing out the season facing each other is the biggest subplot for casual fans to monitor on Monday night. Culver and Hunter have a chance to produce a memorable individual battle before likely turning pro and it could be the saving grace if the national championship turns into a rock fight.

Undersized and underrecruited, Jared Harper a perfect catalyst for underdog Auburn

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MINNEAPOLIS — There wasn’t a lot of hype when Jared Harper committed to Auburn in the spring of 2015.

An undersized, three-star prospect from the Atlanta area, Harper led the Nike EYBL in made three-pointers during the spring of 2014. A great sophomore high school season saw Harper lead Pebblebrook to the Georgia state title game as he averaged 21 points and seven assists per game. None of that mattered to high-major programs who were skittish to offer a 5-foot-9 guard with questionable strength.

“I was recruited by some schools and some schools didn’t wanna offer at that time, just because of my size. They didn’t know if I could play at the high Division I level,” Harper said.

Harper’s lack of size didn’t stop Auburn’s coaching staff from going all-in on him early. Assistant coach Tony Jones was the first to see Harper play. Over the next several months, Bruce Pearl’s entire staff began to fall in love with the skills, IQ and confidence Harper brought to the table.

A night after Auburn completed a surprising SEC Tournament run to end the 2014-15 season, Harper pledged to the Tigers. His only other offers at the time were from Kansas State, Ole Miss, UAB and South Alabama.

“BP believed in me from day one,” Harper said. “I just feel like when I stepped on Auburn’s campus for the first time that I could see myself there. It’s a great environment, it’s close to home and my family could come and see all of my games. And being able to play as a freshman was big for me.”

Harper’s commitment, the first Auburn pledge for the Class of 2016, ushered in a new era of Tigers basketball. By committing early, Auburn’s staff could focus on finding pieces to complement their new lead guard while Harper could ignore recruiting and focus on getting better.

By the end of summer 2015, Auburn’s early evaluation was already paying off. Harper elevated into a top-75 national prospect by helping a loaded Georgia Stars team win the Nike EYBL title at Peach Jam. Harper was named co-MVP of the event with Wendell Carter as his blistering shooting was the talk of North Augusta. Even though the Stars featured a loaded roster that had Carter (Duke), Udoka Azubuike (Kansas), Brandon Robinson (North Carolina) and Trent Forrest (Florida State), Harper often looked like the best player on the floor.

“There’s [a couple things] about Jared that made him who he is. He has an incredible belief in himself. A lot of guys doubted him because he’s so little. The confidence is never an issue with him,” former Auburn assistant coach Todd Golden, who helped recruit Harper, said. “And he sees the game like a coach does. He’s been that way since he was young. His father, Pat, put a ball in his hands when he was young. Jared has played a ton of basketball, so when it comes to handling certain situations, he’s already been through it.”

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – MARCH 31: Jared Harper #1 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates by cutting down the net after their 77-71 win over the Kentucky Wildcats in the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 31, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Other players also noticed Harper’s abilities as he turned into a recruiter — helping Auburn land two five-star prospects (Mustapha Heron and Austin Wiley) and a quality role player (Anfernee McLemore). Once Harper finally landed on campus, his gym-rat mentality was immediately noticed around the Auburn program. Harper and fellow starting guard Bryce Brown made a habit of living in the gym. Other players followed suit. Harper and Brown’s fathers were also constantly present around the Auburn program, shooting with their sons and talking ball with the coaching staff. A unique father-son dynamic around the Tigers fostered a family-oriented team that never listened to doubters.

“They started that culture of guys being in the gym late at night. They started that culture of guys coming in early in the morning. And now it’s a competition on who can spend the most time in the gym,” Auburn assistant Steven Pearl said. “It’s almost to a fault. We have to tell our guys, ‘get your ass out of the gym, you’re going to be exhausted!’ The guys challenge each other and come in together and it’s just become a great environment with Auburn basketball. We have some of the hardest-working kids in the country.”

Harper’s underdog mentality has fit in naturally with a team making its first-ever Final Four appearance this weekend. A double-figure scorer in all three seasons with the Tigers, Harper is a perfect catalyst for the Tigers with his ability to score and distribute. Auburn will be an underdog when they face No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday, but they’ve already mowed through blue bloods like Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky the past three rounds. Facing another title hopeful won’t bother a team that has relished the underdog role the past few seasons.

“I feel like we’ve been in the underdog role a lot, I’ve been in the underdog role my entire life,” Harper said. “We’re taking it as it comes, we know what we can do. We know that at the end of the day, it matters what we believe in and what we feel like we can do.”

Injured Auburn forward Chuma Okeke returns to cheer for Tigers during Elite Eight win

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Auburn advanced to the Final Four without starting forward Chuma Okeke on Sunday but the Tigers still had the sophomore on the sidelines despite his recent knee injury.

Suffering a torn ACL in the win over North Carolina in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, Okeke was wheeled into the arena for the second half as he watched Auburn close out SEC-rival Kentucky to advance to the Final Four for the first time.

After the Tigers and head coach Bruce Pearl secured the win to advance to Minneapolis, Okeke also added the Auburn name to the next part of the bracket — something he also did on Friday after the win over the Tar Heels.

Okeke is out for the rest of the NCAA tournament, as he’s scheduled to have surgery early this week. It’s hard to say if Okeke will be in Minneapolis if he’s scheduled for an operation, but the Tigers have used the injured forward to give them an emotional lift.

Auburn advances to first Final Four with overtime win over Kentucky

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Auburn advanced to the first Final Four in program history with a 77-71 overtime win over No. 2 seed Kentucky on Sunday afternoon in the Midwest Region.

Trailing by five at halftime, the Tigers started the second half on a 12-2 run to take their first lead of the game before a back-and-forth battle ensued the rest of the way. Bryce Brown got hot to keep Auburn in the game with a flurry of second-half points as he almost single-handedly led the Tigers back in the game with 24 points. After going scoreless the first eight minutes, Brown and junior guard Jared Harper (26 points) took over as they combined to score 50 points. Both guards got going after the slow start as Auburn won thanks to the potent duo taking over. After a flurry of three-pointers to score 97 points to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina on Friday, the Wildcats held Auburn to only 7-for-23 three-point shooting on Sunday.

Playing without starting forward Chuma Okeke (torn ACL suffered in Friday’s win), an emotional Auburn was led by its potent perimeter with other players chipping in on both ends. Brown got whatever look he wanted with step-back elbow jumpers while Harper did significant damage going to the rim late in regulation and overtime. Anfernee McLemore also chipped in eight points and five rebounds for the Tigers.

A No. 5 seed, Auburn advances to face No. 1 seed Virginia in next Saturday’s Final Four in Minneapolis. Although the Tigers (30-9) are missing Okeke at this point in the season, they are still a very dangerous team thanks to their balance and potent scoring from the perimeter.

Even though Auburn was a top-ten team earlier this season, nobody expected the Tigers to be playing in next weekend’s Final Four. Struggling early in SEC play, last season’s co-SEC champions looked sluggish at times against average competition. Things changed in the final weeks of the season. Auburn showed flashes of brilliance with four wins in four days at the SEC tournament in Nashville as they maintained the hot streak into the NCAA tournament.

Surviving a first-round comeback scare against No. 12 seed New Mexico State after blowing a double-digit second-half lead, the Tigers have dispatched Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in three straight games — three of the winningest programs in men’s college hoops.

During a season in which Auburn was dealing with issues with the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, the Tigers have ignored off-the-court issues and late-season losses to players like Okeke to make an unlikely Final Four run. Having head coach Bruce Pearl in the Final Four should make things fun as Auburn can stay with any team left in the field if they continue to force turnovers and get perimeter scoring.

Losing twice to Kentucky during the regular season, Auburn got revenge with a win in the third matchup to reach the sport’s final weekend. On Feb. 23, the Tigers lost 80-53 in Lexington as they were an unranked team trying to figure things out. Since then, Auburn hasn’t lost a game, as they’ve won 12 straight games and enter the Final Four as the hottest team left in the field.

Kentucky (30-7) jumped out to an early 17-7 lead before Auburn fought back to close within two points right before halftime. The Wildcats had chances to push ahead but cold three-point shooting (5-for-21 threes) and shaky free-throw shooting (12-for-21) prevented Kentucky from pulling away.

After not playing in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a hard cast on his foot, sophomore P.J. Washington continued a heroic weekend as he finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds against the Tigers.

Washington scored 15 first-half points to carry Kentucky early as he looked unstoppable. After a sluggish start to the second half, Washington became the team’s go-to player in the final minutes. Washington just didn’t have enough consistent offensive help to get to the Final Four from his teammates.

Freshmen guards Keldon Johnson (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Ashton Hagans (10 points) both finished in double-figures, but freshman wing Tyler Herro (seven points, 3-for-11 shooting) struggled to get going after a good game on Friday. Hagans also had seven turnovers as the Wildcats had 14 for the game.

With the Midwest Region losing the No. 1 seed in North Carolina, it looked like a path opened up for Kentucky to make another Final Four run after beating Auburn twice during the season. But as was the case last season, the Wildcats were knocked out by a lower seed before the Final Four, as this loss to Auburn will undoubtedly feel like a major disappointment to close the season.

As is the case in most offseasons, Kentucky will reload with (at least) three more five-star freshmen as Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks and wing Kahlil Whitney come in for the Wildcats. Some key pieces like Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery could also return for Kentucky. But facing the loss of players like Washington, Herro and Johnson (along with Reid Travis) could make it tough for the Wildcats to reach this spot again next season. It’ll be interesting to see who else Kentucky will add before we get to fall practice.